Contemporary American Reform Responsa

121. Mourning for a Non-Jewish Spouse

QUESTION: What traditional mourning custom should be observed for a non-Jewish partner? In this instance the couple in this mixed marriage has spent a lifetime together. (Rabbi D. Polish, Hollywood, CA)

ANSWER: Jewish mourning customs are intended to help the living overcome their grief for the dead and are to honor the deceased. It is clear that immediately after death virtually nothing helpful can be done, and so, during the period of aninut the mourner is exempt from all positive religious acts such as the recital of fixed prayers, etc. (Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 341.1; Orah Hayim 341.1). The Talmudic reasoning behind this indicated that the mourner should not be interrupted from looking after the needs of the deceased as she prepares for the funeral (Suk. 26a; Sotah 44b; Yad Hil. Avel 4.6). It is for the same reason that no visitation occurs during this period. Later, however, the shiva, sheloshim, etc., are intended to help the mourner overcome her grief.

Let us look at a number of distantly related matters which may help us. There is some discussion of this question in connection with proselytes. Maimonides ruled that a convert does not have to mourn a non-Jewish parent (Yad Hil. Avel 2.3) and Caro commented that this decision stemmed from the fact that a convert was considered like a "new- born child." However, Maimonides also stated that a convert is duty-bound to provide a measure of honor for his non-Jewish parents (Yad Hil. Mamrim 5.11). This means that some of the mourning practices would be considered obligatory upon a convert for his non-Jewish parent, while others would not. Somewhat later, Ibn Ezra stated that one should, for plain human reasons, honor one's non-Jewish parents (Commentary to Deut. 21.13 and Yeb. 47b; Kid. 21b). This consideration, and others, led Oshry (Memaa-maqim pp. 69-72) and Aaron Walkin, (Zegan Aron, Yoreh Deah #877) to decide that one could recite qaddish for non- Jewish parents, but should make some distinction between mourning for a Jewish parent and a non-Jewish parent.

We would, however, make no such distinction as the non-Jewish parent has presumably also influenced her child for good, and therefore, deserves to be honored through qaddish. Family loyalty would demand the recitation of qaddish.

Now, let us turn to a different situation in which there is no family relationship between the Jew and the Gentile for whom qaddish has been requested. This might occur when a Gentile has made a gift to the Jewish community. Gifts by non-Jews to the ancient Temple in jerusalem were considered under certain conditions (Ar. 6a). In this century Abraham Klein was asked whether a Gentile who made a gift to the synagogue could be memorialized by the el male rahamim on the days of yiskor and he assented (Beerot Avraham #11). Gifts to the synagogue which possessed a different degree of sanctity than the ancient Temple were always acceptable as long as the community could use them as needed (Yad Hil. Matnat Aniyim VIII, 8; Tur Yoreh Deah 258; Isserles to Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 254.2; Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 259.4). In fact, it was considered permissible to solicit such gifts from the general community and to maintain an honor role for that purpose (Abraham Cohen, Kol Aryeh, Orah Hayim #14; Moses Sofer, Responsa Yoreh Deah #225; Joseph Messas, Mayim Hayim #82).

Another useful analogy can be made with the prayers recited for governmental figures. This custom, based on Jeremiah 29.7, was already mentioned by Philo (Against Flaccus 7). This led to special services of mourning for deceased government leaders in various periods. We have some from the eighteenth century which contain all the traditional prayers of mourning (A. Hertzberg, The French Enlightenment and the Jews, pp. 203 ff). It would, therefore, be appropriate to recite qaddish for righteous Gentiles who have aided the Jewish or general community.

Each of these matters is, of course, different from the non-Jewish spouse in a mixed-marriage, yet the same basic reasoning would apply, for it is family loyalty and a wish to honor the dead which leads us to qaddish as well as the other mourning customs. These customs are, of course, primarily intended to help the living through the period of grief.

Although none of the traditional mourning customs are obligatory for a non-Jewish spouse, we would, nevertheless, encourage observance which will help overcome grief, do honor to the deceased, and stress the family ties.

June 1986

If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.